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The What3Words application is on display at the What3Words booth during CES Unveiled at CES International, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019, in Las Vegas. The mobile app and website divides the earth's surface into 3-meter squares and assigns each one a unique three word "address" to allow for a system more accurate than conventional street addresses.John Locher/The Associated Press

In days of yore, ancient mariners would use the stars to guide them across the seas. But times have changed, and the sextant has been replaced by a smartphone that fits in your pocket. Navigation apps make getting where you want to go simple. Google Maps, the most popular of these, has more than a billion users across the globe each month, who use the service to look up addresses and plan their travel routes by car, public transportation or foot.

But what if there is no street address where you want to go? This is the problem that Briton Chris Sheldrick encountered in his past life as a music tour manager.

“We were going to venues all around the world,” he says. “And every day, I was giving addresses to bands and production crews, and everyone would always get lost, no matter if it was the back of Wembley Stadium at Gate L42, or halfway up a mountainside in Italy or France.”

Sheldrick even tried using longitude and latitude co-ordinates, but the complex number system just wasn’t working, because people didn’t know how to use it. So he sat down with a couple of his friends and, in 2013, came up with a solution: a new location app called What3words.

The idea behind What3words is simple: It divides the entire surface of the Earth, including bodies of water, into 57 trillion three-by-three-metre squares, and assigns a random three words to each square. Entrance L at Wembley Stadium, for example, is went.racks.placed. The east entrance to the Halifax Citadel is possessive.comfortable.postage, while the Gastown Steam Clock in Vancouver is at revise.straws.immunity.

“Most of the world, in fact, doesn’t have an address,” Sheldrick says. “I’m from a village in the U.K. We just have house names and a village name. We have a post code, but they cover huge areas, so in our village, everyone gets each other’s deliveries, and that’s just always been the way.”

When downloaded onto a smartphone, the app pinpoints your location via GPS, much like Google Maps, but gives your location in the three-word code. That code is what others would use to locate you. Of course, you can also use your own app to find someone else the same way.

The app is available in 48 languages, but the words are different for each language; the three words for the Arabic app, for example, are not translations from English for the same location, but their own unique code. That’s to help avoid homonyms in each language; the words ‘author’ and ‘height’, for example, aren’t even close in English, but in French they translate to ‘auteur’ and ‘hauteur’. Avoiding this is important if you’re telling someone your location or using a voice-operated system, though it’s important that you share your location with someone using the same language.

In fact, Mercedes-Benz recognized the potential of What3words when it was designing its voice-operated infotainment system, MBUX, in 2018, and not only integrated the app into its system but also acquired a 10-per-cent share in the company. Since then, What3words has been adopted by other vehicle makers, including Triumph motorcycles, Lotus, Ford Motor Co., Land Rover and Tata Motors.

Mitsubishi is the latest car maker to adopt What3words when it introduced the new Eclipse Cross earlier this year. But Mitsubishi is the first to have the system work entirely offline, having all of its information downloaded onto the infotainment system itself.

“Really, from Mitsubishi’s standpoint, what did we have to lose?” says Trenton Wright, technology planning manager for Mitsubishi in the United States. “Our customers are adventurous; it’s something new and exciting we can offer them. And it also works with no cellular connection, so you can be out in the middle of the woods. Or, if you’re in a parking garage, you can get them to find you. Or, ‘Here’s the building’s address, but I’m in building G and here’s the location of the front door.’”

Perhaps most important, emergency services are recognizing the benefits of What3words. According to Sheldrick, 85 per cent of police and emergency services in the U.K. use the app, while 38 agencies in Canada now use What3words.

Already, lost hikers and injured snowmobilers in Canada have been found using What3words, and many services are actively suggesting that people download the app before heading outdoors; some have even had people download the app while on a call for help. It’s not a perfect system, however, because some three-word codes are almost identical, even if the locations are in close proximity to each other, some emergency services in the UK have been sent to wrong locations.

But when you’re on a frozen lake, a mountainside or even a downtown housing complex, What3words is still a better way for emergency services to pinpoint you faster than with other GPS systems.

“It’s just becoming apparent that Canada suffers like rural U.K. You have a lot of the country where addresses aren’t accurate [or don’t even exist],” Sheldrick says.

Over the past few years, Sheldrick’s company has grown from a team of 10 to more than 120, and this year, it’s focusing on international expansion. It may not replace Google Maps just yet, but Mitsubishi’s Wright feels that What3words will become a mainstream app, and not just in the automotive world.

“When I learned the Eclipse Cross would have What3words, I was kind of blown away. I had never heard of it,” he says. “And I think our customers are coming to the same realization. But once you understand how it works, I think it’s going to take off in a big way.”

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